With a new album and a split EP with Touché Amoré, Self Defense Family are alive and kickin’. We had a chat with Benjamin Tate regarding the band’s last accomplishments and thoughts on what they do, why they do it and how they do it.
You said to New Noise Magazine, “Our model has been intentional failure in exchange for no expectations from the audience”. You guys have put out two amazing records under the name of Self Defense Family and literally dozens of EPs and splits and seem to be raising a pretty decent fan base. Off course you can lead yourselves by higher standards, but you really seem to be going pretty well as artists. This to say: we probably shouldn’t take most of what you say seriously, should we?
As just about anyone who has at some point been “going pretty well as an artist” can tell you, this bears little correlation to success and failure. The “failure” Patrick was referring to was refusing to change our art to be more successful. Our goal is to make records that we enjoy; art for art’s sake. While this does mean we will never likely be attached to any scene and “catch on” in the traditional sense, it also grants us the freedom to produce whatever kind of art fascinates us and also helps ensure our longevity. Scenes come and go and often the bands who ride these waves are destined to be viewed as ephemera and quickly cast aside as that moment fades. Existing outside of the threat of coolness means that we can enjoy our small victories and failures without having that jeopardize our ability to keep producing art.
How many people is Self Defense Family composed of at the moment and how many of them played in the new record, Heaven is Earth?
It’s hard to say. I think there are maybe 12 of us who contribute in some way and are part of the family. Heaven is Earth was recorded by Alan, Mark, Mary, Patrick, Chris, and myself.
How did you end up being so many? I guess it is hard to synchronize all of you. What’s the creative process like?
Again, this was another move to help ensure our longevity. We are all busy people, and don’t really feel like all living in the same city: right now we are spread between San Diego, The Bay, Albuquerque, Philadelphia, Albany, Montreal, New York, New Haven, Reykjavik, and London. The model we use is “everyone is invited to do everything/no one is obligated to do anything.” Some of us have jobs that allow us generous time off or the ability to work remotely while others work in a more square setting or play in like three other bands. This will dictate how much participation one of us will have time for. Rather than calling someone a “fill-in” or telling them they can no longer participate, we just keep it loose and it works itself out. It actually makes the writing process really fun. As we are so widely dispersed, most of our writing and recording is done while we are tour or playing shows as that is really the only time we are ever together. We usually go into the studio with almost nothing or maybe some rough ideas and what is on the records is a result of that. I have been involved with SDF for almost six years now and I have never gone out with the exact same lineup… at least not all playing the same instruments.
I understand you’ve recorded the new album in four different studios in four different cities – two tracks per studio. Why?
Why not? We really enjoy spending time together and recording, but we didn’t really feel like doing a tour. Instead, we sold uncle Tre at Deathwish on letting us go on a short tour where we don’t play any shows and instead just record. We tried to encourage each engineer to put as much of a mark as they were willing to on the songs (Jon Low even plays saxophone pads in the background of one of the songs he recorded with us). We wanted to see how much of an impact studios and engineers had on the process.
On one hand you guys lyrics are subtly vitriolic, on the other quite direct and aggressive – this reminds of bands like KEN mode, or something inherited of acts like Minor Threat. But there is a different stance sometimes, one where it seems like your voice falls into more intimate territory. Are there different sides to S.D.F., one more serious or confessional than the other, more prone to mockery maybe?
I would hope there are different sides to every band. The idea of writing the same thing over and over again is a true nightmare. Again, we are doing this whole thing because it brings us joy. Some days it is more fun to play keyboard than guitar; other times harmonica. For Patrick the direction of the lyrics is influenced greatly by whatever he is going through at that moment. I am sure that is true for everybody but seems especially important when you consider that all of his lyrics are written in the studio while we are tracking instruments. We often don’t have more than one day in any given studio so vocals have to be done in the same session as the songs. Most people write over time and spend lots of time reflecting. With Patrick, the process is so truncated that whatever wikipedia article he happened to read that morning or whatever text he received from a disgruntled ex-partner will have a huge bearing on the direction of the lyrics.
“… even a dear friend’s opinion on what we should produce will be met with an equally dismissive shrug/fart noise to that of a complete stranger.”
Earlier this year you guys put out a split collaborative EP with Touché Amoré, Self Love. For me, the music just sweats punk rock youth and makes me want to ride my skateboard listening to it. What I really loved about that release is that both bands seemed to step out of their comfort zone to some extent. Would you agree with that? How and when did that collaboration came to your minds?
I think the record would have been terribly dull if it just sounded like one of our records with some extra instruments on it. That said, I think the writing process for this was closer to our normal zone and as a result further away from Touche’s. From what I understand their normal writing process is agonizing over each detail. We only had one day with Will Yip to do the record so that approach was not going to fly. They performed very well outside of their comfort zones and were a blast to work with. I think the idea originally started getting kicked around while we were on tour together in Europe in 2013.
Something I noticed in that EP is that Patrick seems to be making an effort to sing in a more “traditional” format, although he’s screaming a lot. That had already happened back in the End of a Year days, but these time the outcome seems to be more successful. I make you the same question I made to the band Enablers, “Did you ever felt like your vocal approach was a limitation, or maybe, on the other hand, a trace of personality?”
I think it is both. Patrick certainly cannot sing to save his life; though his progress in the past year has been admirable. If you ask him he will generally tell you that the point of art is to do things your way until people begin to see that as the correct approach. Regardless of how it is received, his atonal barking is an essential part of the process. There will be a lot of times in the studio where we will find ourselves having some version of the conversation “Does this sound too pretty? eh, don’t worry about it, Patrick is still going to sing on it.” He is the rug that really ties the room together.
You’ve been on Deathwish Inc. for a while, tell us about that. Growing up as hardcore-punk kids, it must be an honor of some sort to share a label with acts like Converge, Modern Life is War and so on. Also, they seem to be moderately fine with the fact that you don’t tour that much and release loads of stuff on loads of different labels.
Uncle Tre is great. I think he understands what we are doing and that we are ultimately a pretty low risk investment. We will never be his best seller; on the other side of that coin, we will never break up. The chances are good that over a long enough time line he will sell all of the records he presses for us. Also, the Deathwish folks put out a bunch of legacy acts. They still release material from the Hope Conspiracy… who have played like five shows in the last three years. Can we live?
I don’t know if I’m implying this because I am just here and now and I’m rather young, but do you feel like it is still possible for a band or label to achieve the same “legendary” status labels like Dischord or Subpop achieved in the pre-internet era. Not that it really matters, but I feel like the internet brought the idea of “consuming” as much music as possible, and at the end the day one doesn’t get to dive deep into the bands and labels the way one used to.
I have no idea really. I mean, I am 31 which is dead in dog years and near-dinosaur status in terms of subculture. I remember the days of looking through the catalogues that came in the physical copies of records that would advertise the label’s other releases and thinking “score, this makes finding new music so easy.” I went digging through the rosters of Touch and Go and Drag City when I was probably in middle school (Pavement was my favorite band.) Nowadays, the internet has replaced almost all of that. I don’t think labels put little cards announcing other releases of theirs in records anymore. Labels seem more like an identity thing now. While access to music is no longer an obstacle, labels have found their niche in helping to curate associations between certain bands. People can refer to Run For Cover bands or Deathwish bands and that will put an association into your head. That said, I don’t know what we are doing for either of those labels on that end… but thank you Tre and Jeff for putting out our records anyway.
What’s next for Self Defense Family?
I just finished boxing up all the records we are taking with us to Australia; we leave in a few days. We will be recording another island 7” while we are there. We will likely be on the west coast of america later this year and next year will probably see us a little more active on the tour front than this year did. Along with that expect another LP and another spattering of EP material.
You say “I don’t give a shit” a lot – and that’s fine. Do you give a shit about those who give a shit about your music?
Yes and No. Certainly if you are talking about taking the needs of people who like us into account when we are producing new material then the answer is an enthusiastic “I DON’T GIVE A SHIT.” However, it is incredibly enjoyable to meet like-minded peers who also produce good work and having them like your music. I have encountered some people who have become very dear friends on the basis that they enjoyed our music. But at the end of the day, even a dear friend’s opinion on what we should produce will be met with an equally dismissive shrug/fart noise to that of a complete stranger. We ride for spite.